How to design a homebrew recipe

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At the crossroads of art and technique, brewing is a real work of craft. I’s in designing recipes that the truly creative part of the brewing process lies. The brewing itself is a series of processes that to materialize  the vision that inspired the recipe.

Here’s a summary of the steps I  take to develop recipes. Of course, I didn’t find all of this all by myself. I was greatly inspired by the following books:

General idea or concept

My first step is to try to come up with a general idea, a concept. Ideally, this description should be short and concise.

Decisions that affect beer composition and processes then taken in order to materialize this overall goal.

Here are some examples of goals:

  • Create a refreshing summer beer that’s easy to drink
  • Better understand the contribution of Citra in a pale ale
  • Brew an American barley wine  that will age on oak for at least a year
  • Brew a representative example of a Bohemian Pilsener
  • Make a Guinness clone

Ale or lager?

The first decision to be made concerns the type of fermentation: ale or lager?

An ale will usually be more fruity, and it will have more complex aromas. Fermentation is usually faster, and fermentation temperature is easier to manage.

A lager is usually crisp, neutral, and clean, and it will have less complex aromas. Fermentation will be longer and a bit more complex to manage, mainly because of the low temperatures it requires.

What style to draw inspiration from?

Generally, the basic concept and type of fermentation naturally directs me to a style of beer.

You can consult the list of styles of the Beer Judge Certification Program.

That said, it is important to realize that the division into distinct styles (as formulated by the BCJP) is arbitrary. The purpose of these style descriptions is only to have objective criteria for competitions; these are not « rules » that must absolutely be followed, but rather a list of criteria based on the best examples of the style.

In short, « styles » are to be taken with a grain of (brewing) salt, but they can help us design a recipe.

Tried and true recipes: a source of inspiration

Depending on the style chosen, I then consult tried and true recipes, recipes that seem representative of the style I want to brew.

My main sources of inspiration are:

Generally, after a review of these recipes, I already have a good idea of where I’m going. Now I need to determine the specific details of the beer.

General parameters

At this stage in the recipe development, I use brewing software (I usually use Beersmith, or the software that comes with the GrainFather). Calculations can also be done manually, but it is much longer.

Gravity and alcohol content

The original gravity (OG), the expected apparent attenuation of the yeast (the percentage of sugars that the yeast should convert to alcohol), and the final gravity (FG) determine the expected alcohol level.

It is not uncommon for the predicted OG to be slightly different on brewday, or for the attenuation to be either higher or lower than expected (and thus the  FG to be different), so that the the actual alcohol content differs from that expected.

With a little practice, you end up having a good idea of ​​what you want. We know, for example, that a FG of 1.020 is high (meaning that there is a lot of unfermented residual sugar), that 1.012 is « standard » (neither very dry nor very sweet), and that under 1.010 is rather dry.

Personally, I like to start from the end: I first determine the FG and alcohol content I am aiming for, and then I determine the OG I need to reach these goals.

A calculator is convenient for this step:

Apparent attenuation, which is generally around 75-80%, depends on the type of yeast used, the mash temperature and schedule, and the fermentable ingredients used.

Bitterness

Once the OG and FG are determined, the question of  bitterness level (IBU) arises. Again, one can rely on the general characteristics of the style to get an idea of ​​the number of IBUs to aim for.

An interesting tool to use the bitterness / density ratio (BU:GU, for Bittering units and Gravity units). Indeed, since the perception of bitterness is different depending on the gravity of the beer, this ratio usually gives a better indication than the absolute number of IBU.

To illustrate this, 100 IBU in a 12% alcohol barleywine is not the same as 100 IBU in a 4% blonde ale.

To calculate the BU:GU ratio, we take the calculated number of IBUs, divided by the OG in gravity units (using only the digits after 1.0xxx). Thus, a beer with an OG of 1.050, with a bitterness level of 25 IBU, will have the following BU:GU ratio:

IBU / GU = relative bitterness
25/50 = 0.5

Generally speaking, beers under 0.5 are less bitter, and beers above 0.5 are more bitter.

You can also take it a step further and consider attenuation. The BU: GU ratio only takes into account the OG. However, the FG, because it represents the amount of residual sugar, also has an impact on the perception of bitterness: the higher the FG the more residual sugar remains, and the less bitter the bitter the beer will be perceived as. It is possible to adjust the BU:GU calculation by comparing the apparent attenuation of beer with the average apparent attenuation of all styles (by following the work done by  The Mad Alchemist) :

Here is an image that shows bitterness ratios by style. Unfortunately, I can not trace the source (my apologies to the person who made this graph):

bu-gu-chart

An important note: in the homebrewing context, we usually don’t have the means to do a laboratory analysis to know the real number of IBU in our beer. We rely on calculations (usually through the software we use).

Different equations have been developed to estimate the number of IBUs, depending on the amount of hops, alpha-acid, boiling time, and the concentration of sugars in the wort.

I did say « estimate »: the actual number of IBUs can be completely different from what we calculated. Thus, it is important to take notes, and to understand our process.

If a calculated IBU of 40 gives the bitterness I want using my system and process, it doesn’t matter if the true number of IBUs is actually 30 or 50; what matters is that it tastes what I wanted it to taste. If a calculated IBU of 40 is not bitter enough, all you have to do is adjust it upward on the next brewday.

In short, the important thing is not to calculate our expected bitterness to the nearest 0.5 IBU; the important thing is to gradually understand our own brewing system, and to adjust our IBU calculations according to the result. We’re not brewing numbers; we’re brewing something to drink.

Color

The beer color is tremendously important from a presentation perpective. For the person who drinks the beer, the beer color creates a « horizon of expectation »: we do not expect the same thing from a blonde beer, a red beer or a pitch black beer. And this expectation has an influence on the tasting experience.

To create the actual color you want is not that simple. Of course, softwares will give a good estimate, depending on various parameters (using a mathematical formula), but the actual extraction of color really depends on the system used. Again, the idea is to use calculators to estimate, and to adjust next recipes according to our systems.

In North America, the Standard Reference Method (SRM) is used most often, whereas the European Brewing Convention (EBC) is more widely used in Europe. And malts are often presented in degrees Lovibond (° L). Hard to follow …!

Here’s an image of the SRM scale, borrowed from Adventures in Homebrewing, to guide you in crafting your recipes:

AIH SRM Chart

Grains and other fermentables

Once basic parameters have been determined (OG and alcohol content, bitterness and color), the time has come to assemble the recipe itself. I usually start with fermentables: the grain bill.

Base malt

I first decide on a base grain, which is the main source of fermentable sugars. It’s usually a two-row barley malt. There is a whole range, from the very neutral American two-row, to the very pale European pilsener, and the tastier English Maris Otter.

A good rule of thumb is to use a malt from the region of the style you want to brew. That said, my personal opinion is that the choice of base malt is of greater importance in lighter beers, which contain fewer specialty grains. If an authentic pilsener malt is probably important for brewing a Bohemian pilsener, I doubt that the choice of base malt is as important in an imperial stout.

In addition to the base pale malts, there are some interesting malts to explore for a little more character, including Vienna and Munich.

Specialty malt

There are two main types of specialty grains:

  • caramel malts
  • roasted  malts

Generally speaking, caramel (or crystal) malts are roasted at high temperature after germination, while they have not yet been kilned. This results in a conversion of sugars inside the grain itself, and an intense caramelization.

Roasted malts, on the other hand, are roasted at high temperature after being kilned. It develops other flavors: toasted bread, moka, some burnt taste, etc.

The important thing in my opinion is not only to think about the color contribution of these specialized grains, but also and especially to their flavor contribution. Caramel malt gives a very intense sweetness that sometimes has its place, but can sometimes be off-putting in certain styles.

It’s a good idea to take the time to taste each malt, before mashing. It’s possible de develop a good intuition of what it will give in the final product by taking the time to taste the grain. The difference between the types of grain (and even between different malthouses) is often surprising.

Other additions

Some beer styles require the addition of fermentable sugars other than malted barley or wheat. An American lager, for example, can have a good amount of corn, rice, or both. And a Belgian quad almost needs the flavors of candy syrup.

The advantage of this type of sugar is usually that it dries the beer out.  Most of these sugars are almost completely fermentable: they will create virtually no residual sugar in the final product. Some of these (less refined) sugars can also add an interesting aroma depth.

Calculating the grain bill

Usually, after this initial research, I have a good idea what I want to include in the recipe (base malt, specialty malt, other sugars). Now the exact amounts have to be calculated.

Using a brewing software (because it’s so much easier than by hand!), I usually start from the end: specialty malts and other sources of sugar. I know, for example, that 125 g of crystal 120 should be enough for that recipe, or that I want to put 454 grams of dextrose to dry the beer out. I then look at Munich or Vienna type grains (454 g of Munich in this IPA, for example, provides a superb malt backbone). And then I finish with the base malt, to get to the desired OG. I then adjust the parameters to get to more manageable amounts (for example, if my calculations tell me to include 425 g of Munich, I will usually round it up to 454 g, to make a full pound).

Hops and other herbs

Although the addition of hops is relatively recent in the history of beer, hops are the most common aromatic addition. No modern beer without hops!

Bittering hops

Residual sweetness in beer need to be offset by some bitterness. Without bitterness, the beer would appear heavy and very sweet. By adding hops at the beginning of the boil, the wort becomes bitter. The number of IBU extracted mainly depends on the percentage of alpha-acids in the hops used.

There are several different way of approaching the matter, but personally, for high IBU beers, I like to use high alpha acid hops (like Warrior, for example): it allows you to add a smaller quantity of hops, so there is less loss from absorption. That said, obviously, the beer style is important: we would not add a very bitter American hop in a Bohemian Pilsener, for example.

Aroma hops

I consider all hop additions made with less than 30 minutes left to the boil as « aromatic ». These additions can bring bitterness (if they spend time in the wort that at a temperature above 185 °F (85 °C), but their main purpose is to add a world of flavors and aroma.

From the citrus notes of American hops to the very floral presence of European « noble » hops, the combination of different aromatic hops has a major influence on the aromatic profile of the final product. Again, I’m guided by the general idea that I try to create with the recipe. If I try to make a representative example of a Bohemian pilsener, Saaz is a must. But if I want to make an bold American IPA, anything goes!

The idea is to experiment with different combinations and to find out what best supports the general idea of ​​the recipe. We can also try reproduce the aromatic profile of a beer we love – quite often breweries disclose the hops they use.

There are a multitude of hopping techniques, including:

  • addition during a certain time of the boil
  • addition at the end of the boil (at flameout
  • whirlpool (at the end of boil, or after cooling the wort below the temperature at which bitterness is extracted)
  • dry hopping or after fermentation
  • dry hopping during dispensing (in the keg, for example)

To calculate the exact amount, I also start at the end: I start with dry hop, whirlpool, and aromatic additions towards the end of the boil. If these additions provide some bitterness, I subtract the number of IBUs from my total IBU target, and calculate the amount of bittering hops needed to reach the desired IBU number.

Other spices

Some styles require additions of other aromatic sources: spices, salt, fruit, lemon peel, oak chips, etc. Once again, the general concept of what we are trying to create must serve as a guide.

Fermentation : yeast strain and temperature

A large part of the final aromatic profile of a beer is based on the yeast strain used and the fermentation schedule. While some styles require a very neutral, very clean fermentation, other styles (such as Belgian styles) rely largely on the aromatic profile of specific yeast strains.

When designing a recipe, the important thing is to ask ourselves how we want to see the yeast expressed in the beer. This general idea guides the choice of yeast strain.

Each yeast strain has its ideal temperature range, and each strain doesn’t react in the same way depending on whether it is fermented at the bottom or the top of the range. That said, in general, low temperatures brings a more neutral profile, and a high temperatures develop more complex aromas.

Usually, when I chose a yeast strain, I do some research to find out what is the ideal temperature for that strain, depending on the profile sought.

My typical fermentation schedule for a neutral ale is to start the fermentation at a rather low temperature (say 65 °F,  18 °C), increase it gradually after a few days (until around 70° F, 21 °C), and hold it there for a few days. This approach promotes attenuation and helps the yeast to « clean up » the final aromatic profile.

Mashing

The mashing regime also has a significant influence on the final profile. The art of brewing is in the ability to play on various precarious balances. The mashing process, which frees up sugar « trapped » in grains and thus makes them fermentable by yeast, is one of the control points to consider to meet our goals.

Without going into the scientific details, the mash temperature allows the activation of the two main enzymes that are active during the mash: alpha-amylase and beta-amylase.

Alpha-amylase is most active at temperatures between 154 °F and 167 °F (67.7 °C – 75 °C), and it tends to create more complex sugar chains of sugars that are not fermentable, while beta-amylase is most active between 130 °F and 150 °F (54 °C – 65.5 °C), and tends to create more highly fermentable single sugars.

In order to take advantage of both enzymes, mashing is usually done between 146 °F and 158 °F (63.3 °C and 70 °C). To simplify, if we want to promote beta-amylase activity and thus promote fermentability (and therefore a drier, thinner beer), we will mash closer to 146 ° F (63.3 ° C). If we want to promote alpha-amylase activity and thus produce more non-fermentable sugars (and therefore a less dry beer, with more body), we will go for a mash temperature closer to the top of the range.

This graph (found on the Homebrew Talk forum) is a good illustration of the brewer’s window:

enzyme_activity_one_hour_mash

Mash schedules

There are several mashing regimes. A tightly controlled mashing temperature allows the brewer to influence the wort composition in different types of sugars, and thus the fermentability, residual sweetness and body.

Single step

Single step mashing is the simplest and most common mash schedule: a single mash temperature is chosen and maintained during the duration of the mash (usually one hour). This step is often followed by a final step (mashout) at around 167 °F (75 °C) to stop the enzymatic activity and thus maintain the sugar profile elaborated by the mashing regime. Single-step temperatures are generally between 148 °F and 154 °F (64.4 °C and 67.7 °C).

Multi-steps

Multi-step mashing is a traditional technique used to gradually increase mash temperatures to sugar conversion temperatures (saccharification). The different steps activate different enzymes that have an influence on the final wort composition.

The main mash steps are:

  • Acid rest: Generally between 95 °F and 113 °F (35 °C and 45 °C), this step allows the brewer to slowly lower the mash pH. Rarely used nowadays, since we have other acidification techniques (acid addition, or use of acidulous malt)
  • Ferulic acid rest: Between 111 °F and 115 °F (44 °C and 46 °C), this step helps developing ferulic acid, which is said to increase clove aroma in wheat beers.
  • Protein rest: between 104 °F and 140 °F (40 °C and 60 °C), and more active between 122 °F and 131 °F (50 °C and 55 °C) this step aims art increasing protein formation (and thus the head retention and body), especially for under-modified German malts. Most modern malts do not need this step.
  • Saccharification step (alpha and beta-amylase): this level is often split in two steps, beta-amylase (140 °F to 146 °F, about 60 °C to 63.3 °C), which promotes the creation of simple sugars, and alpha-amylase (154 °F to 162 °F, about 67.7 °C to 72 °C), which promotes the creation of non-fermentable dextrins and sugars.

Here are some classic multi-step mashes:

  • Traditional multi-steps mash: Traditionally, German brewers used a mashing regime that included a protein rest, to compensate for under-modified malts
  • Hockhurz mash: As modern malts are better modified, German breweries often use a two-steps mashing regime. This is a first step around 145 °F (62.7 °C) and another step around 158 °F (70 °C), to promote high fermentability, while promoting the presence of dextrins to increase body and character.

Decoctions

A decoction is a method used to get from one mash step to another. The idea is to remove some of the wort from the mash (a thick portion, with the grains in it), boil this decoction separately for a while, and then add it  back to the main mash. The addition of the boiling decoction increases the temperature of the wort and brings it to the next step.

This technique develops interesting aromas resulting from Maillard reactions, without adding other types of malt.

It’s possible to make simple, double or triple decoctions, depending on the number of steps to reach.

Here is a graph from Braukaiser.com that illustrates the different steps (these are for a triple decoction):

Mash_diagram_tripple_decoction.gif

In short, this is a rather complex and time-consuming technique, but one that can be added to our brewer’s toolbox.

For more information :

Water profile

The most abundant ingredient in beer is water. Obviously, the most important thing is that the water is clean and free of chlorine or chloramine. But pushing the analysis further, the chemical composition of the brewing liquor is also of paramount importance in the expression of flavors and aromas. This is another variable that can be considered when creating a recipe.

Whole books are dedicated to water treatment for brewing. Personally, I try to take a practical approach: I do not claim to fully understand all the chemical reactions between different salts and malts, but I know, for example, that a higher concentration of sulfites or chloride will a different impact on bitterness.

I rely on the water profiles proposed by Bru’n Water. But be careful, apart from perhaps for the water of the city of Pilsner, I do not trust historical profiles of specific cities. We do not know if the brewers were modifying their water, one way or another. I usually rely on the general profiles (like « yellow balanced », for example).

The interaction between water minerals and different malts also affects mash pH. Calculators are approximate, in the sense that it is very difficult to accurately predict mash pH. For this reason, I approach the idea of the mash pH separately from the water profile.

I usually proceed as follows:

  • according to the general concept of beer, I first select a water profile
  • I use the Bru’n Water spreadsheet, which compares the my water with the target profile (water from my city is very soft)
  • the spreadsheet calculates the amount of gypsum and calcium chloride to add to the mash and sparge water
  • on brew day, I add the salts before adding the grain
  • after having added the grain, I measure the mash pH
  • using a few drops of lactic acid if necessary, I aim for a ph between 5.2 and 5.4

Determining a precise water profile is not absolutely necessary in the recipe design process, but it is an interesting and relatively easy to control variable.

For more information:

Conclusion

Brewing beer is a series of decisions, and each of them influences the final product: ingredients, yeast strain, fermentation schedule, mash temperature and regime, à water profile and techniques used all contribute to the final aromatic profile, from color to aroma, to mouthfeel.

To develop a new recipe, I use a document like this one: Recipe planning. This one is filled with the preparation notes of my last recipe, a NEIPA, which is currently fermenting.

There are many ways to approach the design of a beer recipe – this is just my thought process. In any case, whether you’re a hyper-methodical and scientific brewer, or more artistic and intuitive one, the goal remains the same: creating a beverage that suits our taste, with all its subtleties. And one that has the not insignificant advantage of being alcoholic.

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